Friday, May 22, 2009

For seven years I was the music teacher at Harmony Elementary. My actual title was "long-term substitute" because I'd been hired in a panic after the previous teacher quit, and my only qualifications were an ability to play the violin and to sing in tune. Nonetheless, the Department of Education more or less overlooked the fact that I had no teaching certification, and the principal/superintendent abetted my illegal tenure for various reasons, not least because I had a reasonably good relationship with a number of less-than-charming children.

Harmony, as I'm sure I've mentioned, is a K-8 school of 90 or so children, nearly all from working-class, laboring, or unemployed families. And Harmony is not very close to any cultural venues. Thus, I became, for seven years, the arbiter of culture in this town. Once a week I arrived with my carload of guitars, and we sang everything from the Carter Family to the Village People. Despite my classical training, I didn't spend a great deal of time forcing classical pedagogy and music-reading down their throats. I tried to introduce them to the basics of the American songbook, to help them see how those songs linked to their own lives and to what they were listening to on the radio. The day after 9/11, we did a close reading of the National Anthem. In a town where people display "I Shoot Terrorists" stickers on their cars, a close reading seemed like the only answer.

But after seven years I lost my job. Pressed by Bush's No Child Left Behind requirement for "highly qualified teachers," the state refused to give me any more waivers to teach. My only choice was to get certified in music, which would have meant, among other things, passing a special-ed course using a Prentice Hall textbook which I had rewritten and then edited in eight editions--all in order to teach for one day a week. I said no, and the school was forced to advertise the position. I cried, the kids cried, their parents cried. It was a stunning and humbling moment for me. I may have made next to no impact on this town as a poet; but as a music teacher, I did.

So for two years now, I have been like any other parent: sitting in the bleachers at the school concert, wincing as my kid plays "The Hall of the Mountain King" on the piano. But last week six 4th- and 5th-grade girls asked me to play and sing "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight" with them at the concert. This is a song I had taught them in kindergarten. Along with Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings," it is one of the most popular tunes I ever taught. The kids would cry as they sang: small children are suckers for beautiful sadness.

So today, instead of running my Friday revision workshop, I am bringing my guitar to school; and six little girls and I will stand outside in the sunshine and sing "Amelia Earhart" together. 

Here's the chorus of the song. (The band Freakwater does a version of it that's fairly close to our rendition.)

There's a beautiful, beautiful field,
Far away in a land that is fair.
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart.
Farewell, first lady of the air.


Mr. Hill said...

I think I only know the Freakwater version, but I love that song. That will be a fun day.

Scott said...

I got a lump in my throat when the kids sang that song. Very touching!

Dawn Potter said...

That song is a heartbreaker, but of course the kindergartners at first didn't know who Amelia E. was: we had to get out a library book and look at her picture, etc. (It helped that she was beautiful.)

The song was written soon after the airplane was lost, making it a kind of celebrity tribute song. But it retains its strong link to an older folk tradition . . . very Woody Guthrie-esque in that way. I love it.